Readers Ask
Every now and then I present questions that readers of Intralingo have asked regarding different aspects of literary translation, along with my answers.

Dear Lisa,

I want to translate and publish a book from English into Arabic. Can you please guide me what is the right book to translate? I am looking for interesting, funny or sceintific books yet I am not aware of any famous one.

Appreciate your advice,


Dear Zainab,

What seems like a simple question unfortunately has no simple answer! There is so much involved in translating a book, that there’s no way to answer this question in a few words!

I actually offer two four-week courses trying to answer that question and others, including: How do I become a literary translator? What is the industry like these days? What is the best place to get started? How does it affect me, as a translator, that literary translation is a derivative art? What is copyright and why do I need it? Where do I find books to translate? Where can I get published? What does literary translation pay? You can find more information about both First Steps and Next Steps here.

But, to help you get on your way now, I would suggest two things: (1) read widely and (2) start small.

If you’re going to choose the work you want to translate, then it should be something you’ve read, enjoyed and believe could work in your target market. So read everything you can get your hands on in English to try and determine what that might be.

Reading a lot in Arabic will also be important. You are going to need to know who is publishing what, what magazines or journals publish works in translation, and what genres they publish. Being intimately familiar with the target market and what potential readers will want to read in translation is essential.

In terms of starting small, I mean this in a few ways. To start with, it’s rare to go from not being published at all to suddenly getting a contract to publish a whole book. As a result, it’s often better to start with smaller works: essays, short stories, articles.

I also mean small in terms of the process. Translation is a derivative art, so you must get permission to publish a translation. It can be much easier to work directly with an author who likely holds the rights to his or her essay, short story, article or other work published in a journal, newspaper or anthology. You can reach out to an author to inquire about the permission to translate and will usually get a response. With books, however, foreign rights are usually held by a publisher. It is therefore a much more challenging way to start because no publisher will grant rights to a translator. The best they can do is tell you whether the rights are available.

Here are some other posts about copyright and translation as a derivative art that will explain more:

I hope this helps a little, Zainab!

As I say, there is much to learn but don’t be disillusioned—breaking into literary translation takes a lot of time and effort but it can most certainly be worth it.

Perhaps I’ll see you in one of my classes one day!

Kind regards,

Readers, how did you find the first work you published in translation? Or did it find you? Do tell…